In the movie Ever After, Danielle is asked to select her favourite book from a very impressive library and she replies that she could no sooner choose a favourite star from the heavens (or something to that effect.) Well, this Barbara Erskine novel is my favourite star and I can honestly tell you that attempting to review it terrifies me!
If you’ve never read a Barbara Erskine book before (why not?!) her novels usually involve the stories of two very strong women who have lived centuries apart and whose lives are connected even though they may not yet realise it. To me, at the core of each of her novels is a message about the nature of time itself – the past and the present are all as interwoven as the lives of the characters in her novels. It’s a brave author that can tackle the subject of time in fiction and a brilliant author who can do it well.
The reason that Kingdom of Shadows is my all-time favourite lies in the character of Isobel Buchan and the role she played in bringing Robert the Bruce to the throne of Scotland. I guess I have always been drawn in by Isobel’s rebellious spirit and her absolute defiance of the English King. She is such a strong historical figure and reading about her always reminds me that although we consider women of those times to be oppressed, they still were born with their fighting spirit. Some men recognised this, others feared it. Take for example this interaction between Isobel and King Edward (just after he has announced he has finally captured William Wallace):
'You seem pale, Lady Buchan. Can it be that you feel sorry for this leader of rebels?'
'Sir William is a brave man, your Grace,' Isobel said clearly. 'And he is no traitor to you. He is a Scotsman born. He has never paid allegiance to the King of England.'
'Unlike you, my lady, if memory serves me right.' The sallow face was pinched. She could feel his eyes boring into her. Nervously, she straightened her shoulders.
'I did what I had to , your Grace,' she murmured defiantly.
His mouth twisted into a half smile. 'Against your will, it seems. Can it be that your wife, too, is a rebel at heart Lord Buchan?'
'Indeed not your Grace.' Buchan's face had gone first white and then red. 'She is an ignorant woman, your Grace. And very foolish. She does not know what she is saying.'
There was a long silence as Edward scrutinised Isobel's face, and she looked away, suddenly terribly afraid. At last, he spoke. 'I think you underestimate your wife, Lord Buchan,' he said slowly.
Though courageous, Isobel's character does not achieve her happily ever after (but you knew that already). However, I think the tragedy of the story is only amplified by the fact that it was real. But you rarely see her cower from her destiny and it takes so much to break her that when she is finally broken, the result is devastating. We all have something or someone we feel passionately enough to trade our life for but most of us will never be called upon to make that sacrifice. Isobel was and she made that sacrifice willingly.
The other aspect to the novel is of course the story of Clare Royland, the modern-day heiress of Duncairn. Although Clare's story is not as memorable as Isobel's it certainly mirrors the tension of the parallel storyline perfectly. Barbara Erskine stated in an interview that when she wrote about Clare's husband she wanted to explore the 'alcoholic personality type' (where someone has the behaviours and unpredictability of an alcoholic but does not necessarily drink.) I found Clare's husband Paul to be every bit as sickening as the author intended him to be!
Love, history and Robert the Bruce. What more could you ask for?
This novel will always remain one of my all-time favourites because of the wonderful characters and the rich history. I highly recommend it to anyone even slightly interested in Scottish history. I sincerely hope you enjoy it as much as I do!